After experiencing burnout, Wendy McCristal set up her own company to train organisations how to look after their team’s wellbeing

As a former engineer, Wendy was familiar with working in male-dominated industries such as rail and understands the importance of opening up about mental health in such professions.

After completing Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training herself, she now recommends her corporate clients to complement The Mental Wealth Company’s Non-Technical Skills courses with MHFA training, as individual wellbeing is integral to improving organisational safety and efficiency.

Here, she shares her personal experience, how she found the MHFA training and the work she does to improve wellbeing and mental health in companies…

Wendy McCristal Mental Wealth Company
‘Getting people talking about their own mental health challenges helps others to see that it’s not just happening to them and to feel less alone.,’ Wendy McCristal

How did your own experiences lead you to set up the Mental Wealth Company?

I worked in corporates as a human factors and engineering consultant for about 20 years. About five years ago I burnt out and was quite ill.

It was the classic situation: middle aged, two kids at two different schools, a house that needed everything doing to it, working until midnight and getting up at 5am, etc.

Over a couple of years, I became more and more ill but I didn’t realise it at the time. I was having emotional outbreaks and crying all the time, but couldn’t put my finger on why.

It came to a head when after I had subscribed to a training programme by One of ManyTM, a women’s empowerment and leadership training company. The training saved my life because I could suddenly see that what I had been doing wasn’t helpful or healthy.

During the training, they asked me, ‘what makes you angry and what makes you cry’. For me, the answer to that was organisations not supporting staff when they get themselves into a fix and not having the skills to help me when I asked for it.

So, I decided to set up a company to address that issue. I wanted it to be bigger than just mental health, I wanted it to be about wellbeing and the skills that we all need to look after ourselves but that don’t really get taught the same as perhaps our technical skills.

How do you work with Andy Elwood to help corporates with their staff wellbeing?

I met Andy and realised what he does is a big part of the solution. I did the Mental Health First Aid training with him, and now we deliver training together. He leads on the MHFA training and we also offer Non-Technical Skills courses which work together to improve safety and performance for organisations.

The Non-Technical Skills course teaches skill sets such as communication, listening, boundary setting and situational awareness which help people to perform better in their job. It also looks at human factors, such as the physical and mental limits of someone’s capability and how going beyond them can have consequence for their safety, or their performance.

I’ve done a lot of work with rail industries and bringing Andy’s personal perspective into that industry is helpful because it demonstrates that even people who appear resilient and capable from the outside, can experience poor mental health too.

It’s still a very masculine culture in the railway industry

The rail industry, particularly when it comes to train drivers, is still a very masculine culture, so having Andy alongside me talking about these things is very relatable. It helps them to see that they’re not alone, that other people have similar worries and it’s okay to talk about these things.

The statistics around suicide and poor mental health in men are scary, so it’s important to open up these kinds of conversations that people may feel they’ve been unable to have before.

You just mentioned the rail industry, why is something like MHFA training so important in that profession?

It’s incredibly important. While the gender divide is improving, it is still a male-dominated industry and, as I alluded to earlier, the statistics for male mental health and suicide are still shocking.

The rail industry hasn’t historically been one where people have the skill sets to ask ‘how are you…really?’ and then be comfortable to really listen to the other person during that conversation, and gently supporting them to work the situation forwards. We’re much better at ignoring the issue, or trying to solve it on their behalf…neither approach really serves us long term.

In the past, in general society, there’s been a massive stigma around talking about mental health challenges. It’s still there to a certain degree, I’ve experienced it myself within the workplace, so we still need to break down this stigma and get people talking about their lived experiences.

Brilliant work has been done in this area in the rail industry over the last few years, particularly by people like Ian Prosser from the Office of Rail and Road. Getting people talking about their own mental health challenges helps others to see that it’s not just happening to them and to feel less alone.

Wendy McCristal mental health first aid
Wendy McCristal and Andy Elwood provide Non Technical Skills courses and Mental Health First Aid training to help companies to support their staff’s wellbeing.

How was your own experience of doing the MHFA training with Andy?

One of the big things that stuck out to me was learning about my own bias; understanding how my own ‘window of the world’ affects the way I turn up in life and how I view other people and situations.

I realised I still have blind spots in terms of the different various forms of mental health challenges and how I respond to them. It has helped me not just in my work but also in my personal life, such as dealing with my children.

I now understand that someone may be acting in a certain way not because of a conscious choice but because of something else going on. That helps me to step back and assess the situation differently.

The ALGEE model (Approach, Assess, Assist, Listen non-judgmentally, Give reassurance and information, Encourage appropriate professional help, Encourage self-help and other support strategies) is really good too. Often, we focus on what to do in a mental health crisis, but I found the ALGEE framework really helpful for understanding what to do if someone is experiencing poor mental health but not necessarily in a crisis.

You can’t underestimate how important it is to just let someone talk and having the knowledge of where best to signpost them to for further help is also vital.

As an engineer, I didn’t understand what health services are available to people who have mental ill health. When I was having my own experiences of burnout, I just assumed there was nothing out there and I needed to fix myself.

Now, I know what different services there are for specific mental health conditions, which can be key to encouraging people to get the support they need.

How is the training you and Andy offer making a difference?

A course delegate told me that within a month of taking the MHFA course, he had saved three lives. He supports men who have mental health challenges in his community and he had three conversations that potentially avoided life-ending actions.

I’ve heard this kind of feedback time and time again from people taking the course.

We opened up one of our courses with a rail company…afterwards we asked ‘how are you doing’, and the answer was that they’d had three known instances of suicidal thoughts within their staff that month. That shows you how needed this course is for everyone, but certainly in the rail industry.

If there are 10 people on a course and every one of those was able to save one life, we’ve more than done our job.

What’s your advice for anyone thinking about doing MHFA training?

Don’t think about it any more, just do it.

Sometimes it’s the less obvious situations that you find yourself using the skills taught on this training. One of my children struggles with anxiety, and just understanding they’re not being difficult when they act in a certain way, it’s just their stress response system, has been a big step forward for me.

Some of the scientifically proven techniques Andy has taught me, such as how to ground and counting five things you can see, make the difference between me getting them to bed and then me going to bed, rather than us both being up until 2am.

We share these teachings with people and give them the confidence to use it. It’s about saving lives but it’s also about improving quality of life for people.

Do you recommend Andy as a trainer?

I love working with Andy. He’s a very calm, grounded and articulate trainer but he’s also very real.

If you spend time with Andy he will tell you about his vulnerabilities, his worries and the bad days as well as the good. He turns up with authenticity.

He’s incredibly conscientious and genuinely wants to help everyone in the room. He puts five-star care in place – he’s not there to take your money and just deliver a PowerPoint – he wants to know you’re okay with what’s being discussed and you understand what’s being talked about.

If you want to support your team’s wellbeing and give your staff the tools to communicate better about mental health, get in touch to find out how to run Mental Health First Aid training in your organisation.